Examining Near Death Experiences (Part II)

In my last entry I discussed six of the common factors found in Near Death Experiences (NDE) as detailed in the book by Jeffrey Long, MD entitled, Evidence of the Afterlife. Scripture remains the solid proof, promise and explanation of an afterlife; but finding or interpreting the experience of people in light of Scripture can give a connection to real events and broader understanding.

Here are some other common experiences listed in the book:

A sense of alteration of time or space. It is always mind-bending to imagine different scales of time or that time didn’t always exist. God reveals himself to be transcendent. Essentially, beyond the constraints of time or physical laws. A well-known passage that gets at this is:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord is day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

2 Peter 3:8

This statement is not a mathematical formula for converting God time to ours. It refers to God’s transcendence and to possibility that the experience of time will differ from Earth to Heaven to Hell. Science would suggest the same thing. While the measurement of the time difference is vague, the general experience is that there is a change of time and space and that you are aware of a difference.

Life Review. We have all heard the expression “my life flashed before my eyes” in connection to a brush with death. This would seem to be a review of your whole life, but particularly your sins. The Bible speaks of Judgment Day, but there is clearly also a “judgment” made at our death. I don’t think it is the same thing. Judgment Day is a future event. The judgment made at our death would be the determination of what comes next. We will all have failures that flash before our eyes, because we are all sinners. Are the sins that we see flash before our eyes our downfall, or are they what has been covered by the death of Jesus? This is what matters at that moment.

Not all people are saved. Scripture reveals it will be a minority. And not all people experience something heavenly in a NDE. Obviously, people would be reticent to announce, “I went to Hell/Sheol”. Those who return with a universalistic message of everyone is saved find themselves in conflict with both the words of Scripture and the experience of many people. Did they misunderstand something? Or is it possible for a NDE to be a deception?

Either way, to experience a life review fits what I would expect.

Encountering Unworldly (Heavenly) Realms. The Bible recounts several Out of Body Experiences (OBE) that took the writer to Heaven. You can find them in Isaiah 6, Daniel 7, Zechariah 3 and Revelation 4,5 and 7. Paul also refers to an OBE/NDE he had in 2 Corinthians 12. It is often hard for the person to discern exactly how they are experiencing this. They cannot tell if it is a vision or actually being there. They cannot tell if this is out-of-body or in the flesh. The Biblical experiences all show the person the throne room of God. It is not a tour of the whole of Heaven or even just another part. NDE recorded after medical emergencies typically reveal another landscape, a very beautiful one, presumably outside of God’s throne room.

These accounts mesh somewhat with Revelation 7:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:16-17

We have a great interest in the landscape and lifestyle of Heaven. A misinterpretation of the Bible leads to art and the idea that Heaven is on clouds, or that we are bodiless or that it is one unending worship service. Clearly from NDE and Revelation 7 it is not in a cloudbank. Everyone experiences great beauty, but the beauty is different from place to place. Some can compare what they see to what God had created on Earth. For others, what they see defies words as it is very different from what is on Earth. Do these descriptions simply project a person’s expectations? I doubt it, for some of those witnesses didn’t expect a Heaven at all.

Why would some experience Heaven even as non-believers and others experience Hell? This is a mystery. God uses it often to turn around a life or point of view. The experience can seem like a mistake with people being told that it is not their time and sent back, but seems to be more complicated than that. Not every NDE happens with prophetic purpose. Perhaps our capabilities to retrieve people medically from death have made the boundary between Earth and Heaven more permeable, but in the end God’s will in done.

There are just a few more common experiences in NDE. I will discuss them next time.

What Is Death?

We all have to go through it.   This is the “After Death Site”.  So what is death?

If you are a strict materialist, you believe that death is the end of a living creature–nothing more.  This is what it looks like for sure.  But revelation from all corners of religion and near death experiences, let alone just the experience of being conscious suggests that death is something more.

Medically death is easy to measure.  The heart stops. Brain activity becomes immeasurable in a short period of time.   The experience from the inside, as reported by those who went through a near death experience, is very similar for all people.  You experience a tunnel with a light at the end.  The light has proven to be Heaven, or Hell (technically Sheol), or something that appears heavenly but is likely a deception.

What has happened? Not having direct experience myself, I lean on 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 for insight:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

This passage is a little confusing in that it weaves two metaphors for our bodies–a dwelling and clothing.  When we are “alive” here on Earth our bodies are referred to as a tent because they are temporary and fragile.  We groan while in them, because we are aging, experience pain, and want, and Monday mornings.  That being true, we still have the will to live.  We do not want to be “unclothed”, meaning that our spiritual self would have no connection to our physical self.

Death “unclothes” us for a moment.  Our earthly body is too damaged to go on, and we drift free of it.  It is the nature of our “soul/conscious” to reconnect, but not on Earth.  We don’t reincarnate.  We are drawn away instead and reconnect to a body either in Heaven or Sheol.  This is what the Bible refers to as the “first” death.  Could this process be sloppy, allowing some to reincarnate and others to drift free like ghosts?  I don’t know, but the Bible would suggest not.

For those who have a Heavenly dwelling because of Jesus, death has a two-edged significance.  To be separated from our bodies is part of the punishment for sin.  Our bodies are sin damaged and we must leave them.  So death is bad.  But on the other side, death allows us to connect with our Heavenly dwelling (further clothed), or as 2 Corinthians says, “be swallowed up by life”.  So death is good.

For those who do not have a place in Heaven, they emerge in Sheol (please see the other articles on Sheol in this blog).  This is not good.  You are aware of the judgment that has befallen you and you have a physicality that can experience the harshness of your new environment.  It is not the final judgment, but it much like it.  Those who have experienced this through a near death experience have reported about it with terror and shame.  They did not want to return.

Death can be as scary as Halloween presents it, or it can be the greatest moment of your existence to date.  Jesus is the difference maker.

Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If that were not so, I would have told you.  (John 14:1-2)

What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.

Is Life After Death Real?

I have spent the last couple of years writing about what the Bible says about life after death.  Today I am asking, “why believe any of it?

We are certainly motivated to think that this life isn’t all that there is for us.  The idea of simply disappearing drains any real purpose from our existence.  It also makes our aging an ever worsening scenario for which there is no escape nor hope.

There are plenty of reasons to think that life after death is more than false hope.  Real faith is the gift of God, but a little extra-biblical evidence certainly doesn’t hurt; especially if you are skeptical of the Bible at this point.

I often joke about the value of a field-trip to Heaven.  Of course, this is not something God is offering, but do some people actually have them?  Near Death Experiences are a curious phenomena that are actually quite common. One in seven people come close to death without permanently dying.  Thirty-five percent of those report a NDE (that’s 5% of the population) Skeptics want to dismiss NDE’s as simply a spike in brain activity right at death.  This explanation doesn’t quite fit the evidence.  Many don’t have enough of a brain left for the spike, and still have an NDE.  Most have been in a coma for a prolonged time, lowering their brain activity. A better theory for the brain activity spike is that when our spirit and body divide there is a surge of electrical activity.

NDEs happen to people of all sorts all over the world.  They do not seem to follow only people who expect life after death.  Many aspects are common among those who have experienced NDE’s.  For instance, going down a tunnel toward a light, being greeted by people they know, a sense of peace, and often the experience of being above your body and able to make detailed, accurate observations of things in the room or even down the hall.

Most people who have an NDE don’t want to come back to life.  Most, but not all.  Some people have experienced Hell.  They were eager to back to life.  That experience is life changing, too.  Would the prevalence of positive experiences suggest that most will be saved or that those with positive experiences are going to be saved?  I wouldn’t draw that conclusion at all.  Here I would count on the words of Jesus, who states that “few find life” and “no one comes to the Father accept through Me.”

I expect that NDE’s and their counterpart Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are similar to the experiences of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1f) and John in Revelation.  They are not exactly tours of Heaven, but rather visions intended for them.  Isaiah certainly experienced Heaven like a field trip, but Jesus states later that no one has gone into Heaven except the One who came from Heaven (John 3:13).  That doesn’t mean that no one can go there now and come back, but it does suggest an out-of-body middle state (Not yet in Heaven and not on Earth).  I would approach the information gained through NDE and OBE’s with caution, because it could be a vision created to deceive.

In the book “Death of a Guru”, Rabi Maharaj talks about the powers of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to take a person out of body and to places perceived as heavenly or at least other-worldly.  His later conversion would convince him that he was in great danger in these states of being deceived by Satan.  Some who have experienced NDE’s, later attempt to repeat the trip through methods similar to TM.  One famous example is neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander who was skeptical of NDEs until he contracted a serious case or meningitis and had one himself.  In a lecture of his that I attended, he announced that he was part of a group investigating the use of certain sound frequencies to liberate spirit from the body.  I think this is a bad idea.

Some NDEs may be legitimate God-given gifts.  They may even be direct experiences of Heaven, but Scripture remains the one safe standard of truth in this matter.  Other methods of experiencing life after death give some credence to dismiss a materialistic philosophy, but do not have God’s approval.  In my next blog entry I will discuss communication with the dead.